An Irishman's Diary


POOR PADDY worked on the railway, as everybody knows, but it wasn’t all drudgery, contrary to what the song suggests. There were occasional triumphs along the way too. None greater, perhaps, than one recalled by an old sign in the Utah desert: “Ten miles of track, laid in one day. April 28th 1869.”

The epic shift thus commemorated took place during construction of the Transcontinental Railway line. And it set a record that would not be beaten in the remainder of that famous coast-to-coast project, whose completion it hastened.

But then, the decimal milestone had not been the result of any accidental spurt in activity, easily replicated. On the contrary, it was meticulously planned, and probably had a large bet riding on the outcome, to help motivate those involved.

The rivalry of the two converging rail companies, Union Pacific and Central Pacific, had spawned several previous daily records: first six miles of track (UP), then seven (CP), then seven and a half (UP again).

These were all competitive marks. But undaunted, the Central Pacific founder, Charles Crocker, now dramatically upped the ante, declaring that his company could do 10 miles. His rivals mocked, and it’s said that a vice-president of UP challenged him to put a $10,000 wager where his mouth was, which he duly did.

It took an army of several thousand workers to land the bet. And “army” is not much of an exaggeration, because there was a quasi-military aspect to proceedings. As in war, huge amounts of heavy material – in this case rail line, fish-plates, bolts, spikes, etc – had to be transported to the “front”: which indeed was the word used for the track’s leading edge.

And as the front advanced, it had to be kept continually supplied: empty cars returning down the freshly-laid rail, and being lifted off, when necessary, to make way for full cars heading the opposite direction.

The various track-workers, meanwhile, stretched for two miles, from the “pioneers” who prepared the way for the line, back through the spikers, bolters, and general labourers, and finally the 400-strong regiment of “tampers” at the rear.

Most of the foot-soldiers were Chinese: famously hard-working though underpaid and segregated from the white men. In fact, “John Chinaman”, as contemporary newspapers called him, accounted for nine out of 10 Central Pacific rail-workers. But pivotal to the record-breaking advance was a hand-picked team of eight Irishmen: the “rail-handlers”.

These were the best track-layers the company had. Under their foreman, a man named George Coley, it was they who lifted the 30ft line sections into place: back-breaking work, since each of the sections weighed 560lbs.

Yet such was the efficiency of the team, and of all the other teams before and following, that – according to one of the newspaper men present – the track advanced sometimes at the pace of a “leisurely walk”.

By lunchtime, six miles had already been covered. Thereafter, with a rising gradient, and an increasing need to bend the lie – manually hammering the rails into the required shape – the work became slower.

But the record was secure. After 10 miles and 56ft, the weary workers could rest. A car was sent speeding back down the line to prove that quality control had not suffered in the haste. And the quasi-military operation was to have a quasi-military post-script a few days later, when the rail-handling “Sons of Erin” were part of a celebratory parade in Sacramento California, where onlookers threw flowers at their wagon.

THE EPIC day’s work may have been commemorated by little more than a sign. But the track itself was their monument. And they were paid an indirect compliment a century later by Sergio Leone’s great film, Once Upon a Time in the West, in which the approach of the railway to a remote desert outpost is a key element of the plot.

It explains why an Irishman called Brett McBain has bought an apparently worthless piece of land in the middle of the desert. And why he and his children are murdered, leaving his wife widowed and mystified, until she learns that the property she has inherited has the only water supply for miles, so that the transcontinental railway line must pass through it.

The prescient but now dead McBain, we learn, had negotiated the rights to build a station, and with it a town: the only proviso being that it must be built before the tracks arrive, which they are fast doing.

Thus, with the railway just “over the hill”, and the town still under construction, the widow’s fortune becomes a race against time.

Of course, in Leone’s elegy, the railway is more than just a plot device. Its approach also means the end of the old west: a realisation that dawns in turn on each of the three main protagonists: the outlaw Cheyanne (Jason Robards), the railway company’s hired henchman, Frank (Henry Fonda), and the stoney-faced, never-named harmonica player (Charles Bronson).

In the closing scene, having killed his enemy, Bronson rides off into the sunset, or at any rate the desert. Meanwhile, in the background, we see the glamorous widow distributing water to the thirsty rail men, who have entered, stage left, along with the track. The town has been built just in time to meet the railway’s march of progress. Which in real life, never marched quicker than in a 10-mile stretch of Utah, 133 years ago today.